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Watkins grows his craft

Club Passim, Cambridge, Mass., March 30, 2016

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Other recent concert reviews
Sean Watkins is no doe-eyed rookie, but the veteran of Nickel Creek, Fiction Family and more somehow just started his second solo tour at the age of 39. And it's a role that Watkins has grown into quite comfortably.

Watkins, who plays acoustic guitar in his main gig, just released "What to Fear" a few weeks ago. The disc clearly shows off his voice, something he's not able to do all that much with Nickel Creek. He has a bit of a plaintive tone, somewhat forlorn (the title track), but has grown more confident with his own abilities to be the main attraction.

It helps to have quality material, and Watkins played a chunk of songs from the new release to set the stage. In fact, five of the first six songs were from "What to Fear." For some audience members, that could be taxing. But that proved no problem for Watkins because while not exactly ready for commercial radio, Watkins' songs play well live. "What to Fear" is a more lively album musically than 2014's "All I Do Is Lie," making the task of going live a lot easier.

Watkins tossed in a few Nickel Creek songs, "21st of May," a song about the prediction of the Rapture coming in 2011 (Watkins recounted that the song was intended for one of his own albums before Nickel Creek got wind of it along with a funny story that he heard from a fan about the song, who just happened to be the granddaughter of the clergyman who predicted the event), and "Somebody More Like You," but it was clear that Watkins had no intention of resting on his laurels.

Watkins was assisted on backing harmonies here and there by Dominique Arciero, who had a chance to sing one of her own songs as well ("Emily," which she introduced about someone who she used to know and apparently didn't hold in high regard). Arciero has pretty vocals, on the more modern country side. She proved to be a good vocal foil for Watkins. Arciero also fleshed out the songs sometimes by playing a MiniLab synth.

Saying he was tired of singing only his own songs, Watkins ran off a string of material from others, including a nimble Bill Monroe song ("The Old Home"), Fiction Family ("Damaged," although Watkins is one-half of that band with Jon Forman); Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket ("Back On My Feet," which is also on "What to Fear") before concluding with a sturdy two-song encore of Buddy Holly's "Every Day" with both Aricero and the crowd helping out before ending the evening with Dylan's "You're Gonna Me Lonesome When You Go").

Closing with a series of covers probably should not have come as a surprise. A low key personality, Watkins may have more chops these days when it comes to being center stage at this point of his career (that's not necessarily so easy to achieve with Nickel Creek when you have Chris Thile on board), and that's well deserved. Watkins is one veteran artist, who has developed and grown his craft.

Petra Haden, who has been part of That Dog and The Haden Triplets, has a new project going with guitarist Jessie Harris. Haden, a violinist, handled the lion's share of the singing with her pretty voice. Harris tended to offer backing vocals, and more from him would have been welcome, but this was more Haden's project. Not easily categorized, the sound is focused on Haden's singing, sometimes a bit jazzy, but fed by Harris' acoustic.

They served up a real nice, slowed-down take of The Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," a sharp contrast with the original. Gutsy move, but it worked.